Wednesday, March 27, 2013

TOP STORY >> Beebe’s veto goes before lawmakers

Leader senior staff writer

The Arkansas Senate could vote today to overturn Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto of a voter ID bill that passed mostly along party lines last week, according to Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy).

There is a chance the veto can be sustained in the House, according to Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood).

“(Rep.) Walls McCrary (D-Lonoke) thought he voted against it,” Nickels said, but his vote counted as an “aye” for voter ID.

Nickels said with McCrary voting to sustain the override, there could be 50 votes against override — enough to block it unless House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot), votes for it.

He said Speaker Carter usually doesn’t vote, but if he does, that would probably be sufficient to override the veto.

The bill, which originated in the House, passed the Senate on March 19 and some legislators Tuesday said they were confident of an override. Arkansas has a relatively weak governor, with only a simple majority in each house needed to override his veto.

“Senate Bill 2…is an expensive solution in search of a problem,” Beebe said Monday, upon vetoing the bill. “The Bureau of Legislative Research estimates (it) will cost approximately $300,000 in tax dollars to implement,” he said, not including future costs.

“I cannot approve such an unnecessary measure that would negatively impact one of our most precious rights as citizens,” he said.

Opponents of the voter ID law — that’s the Democrats — say it will disproportionately make voting more difficult for the poor, elderly and minorities, and that is why Republicans pushed the bill.

Republicans, including Stuart Soffer, a state election commissioner from Jefferson County, say it’s just intended to make elections fair and cost effective and should streamline voting.

But Beebe said, “At a time when some argue for the reduction of unnecessary bureaucracy and for reduced government spending, I find it ironic to be presented with a bill that increases government bureaucracy and increases government expenditures, all to address a need that has not been demonstrated.”

A recent study found only about a dozen prosecutions for voter identification fraud at the polls across the United States in the past decade.

Dismang said Tuesday that legislators are dealing with three elephants in the room — a proposed $100 million tax cut, the proposed Big River Steel plant in Mississippi County, and private option-health insurance to cover an additional 250,000 working poor in the state.

“We hope to have a bill dropped on the private option this week,” he said.

House Bill 1770, which amends and expands the state Education Departments toolkit for fixing schools or school districts designated as being in academic, fiscal or facilities distress, is on the Senate Education Committee agenda for today as well, but that doesn’t guarantee that committee will consider or vote on it today. It has 36 bills on the agenda.

“It’s hopefully presented tomorrow in the Senate Education Committee,” Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) said Tuesday. That and a vote on the Senate floor would be the last step before sending it to Beebe.

The bill, sponsored by Perry, passed the House by an 89 to 1 margin on March 14. Twenty-five of the 30 state senators are listed as co-sponsors of the bill, so Perry said it will pass unless something goes haywire. The governor has said he would sign the bill.

The most significant changes include increasing from two to five the number of years the state can run a distressed school or district, authority to run a single school or schools within a district and authority to make any changes that don’t conflict with the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act.

This would seem to give the department authority to abrogate the union contracts. It did that with less cover under the existing law when in addition to replacing the superintendent and dissolving the school board of the Pulaski County Special School District, state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell allowed acting superintendent Jerry Guess to void contract language not only affecting direct cost to the district, but also indirect costs, and to decertify the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and Pulaski Association of Support Staff as employee bargaining agents.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-North Little Rock), who has acted in the past to support those unions, has offered a Senate bill of her own that would “require legislative review of the administrative reorganization of school districts’ assumption of administrative authority of a school district, or closure of a school by the state Board of Education.”

Chesterfield’s husband, Emry, is president of PASS. PASS and PACT are currently suing the district in Pulaski Circuit Court over administrative actions that abrogated those employee contracts.

Chesterfield’s Senate Bill 794 was introduced in the Senate Education Committee March 5, and could be considered there today.

Perry also sponsored a bill that would define how a new district, such as the one Jacksonville has been trying to carve out of PCSSD for the past 20 years, would be funded. “It’s not been done before,” he said.

On the Arkansas State Legislature website, Perry’s HB1632 is a shell bill — one with a title and subtitle but as of yet no content.

Tuesday, Senate Bill 374, cosponsored by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock and Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, was amended to specify the conditions under which defunct dry voting districts may vote on whether or not to allow alcohol sales.

Gray Township, which includes much of the Jacksonville area, is the area that may be most immediately affected.

The question arose when a convenience store chain, not realizing it had built a store in a dry area of a wet county, sought the ability to sell beer at its stores.

As amended, the question could be voted upon if 38 percent of registered voters in the dry area signed a petition to request such a vote.

The proposed bill would allow by-the-drink liquor sales at restaurants and beer and wine sales at groceries and convenience stores.

Perry has said such a law would be good for economic development.

Williams has sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the state Legislature the authority to set procedures and practices regarding tort reform. Currently that power lies with the state Supreme Court, he said Tuesday.